Understanding host interactions that lead to pathogen transmission is fundamental to the prediction and control of epidemics1–5. Although the majority of transmissions often occurs within social groups6–9, the contribution of connections that bridge groups and species to pathogen dynamics is poorly understood10–12. These cryptic connections—which are often indirect or infrequent—provide transmission routes between otherwise disconnected individuals and may have a key role in large-scale outbreaks that span multiple populations or species. Here we quantify the importance of cryptic connections in disease dynamics by simultaneously characterizing social networks and tracing transmission dynamics of surrogate-pathogen epidemics through eight communities of bats. We then compared these data to the invasion of the fungal pathogen that causes white-nose syndrome, a recently emerged disease that is devastating North American bat populations13–15. We found that cryptic connections increased links between individuals and between species by an order of magnitude. Individuals were connected, on average, to less than two per cent of the population through direct contact and to only six per cent through shared groups. However, tracing surrogate-pathogen dynamics showed that each individual was connected to nearly fifteen per cent of the population, and revealed widespread transmission between solitarily roosting individuals as well as extensive contacts among species. Connections estimated from surrogate-pathogen epidemics, which include cryptic connections, explained three times as much variation in the transmission of the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome as did connections based on shared groups. These findings show how cryptic connections facilitate the community-wide spread of pathogens and can lead to explosive epidemics.
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